An Evening at the Theater

Drury Lane Theater
Her fellow-travellers the next day were not of a kind to make her think him less agreeable. Sir William Lucas and his daughter Maria, a good humoured girl, but as empty-headed as himself, had nothing to say that could be worth hearing, and were listened to with about as much delight as the rattle of the chaise...
As they drove to Mr. Gardiner's door, Jane was at a drawing-room window watching their arrival;...The day passed most pleasantly away; the morning in bustle and shopping, and the evening at one of the theatres.

Chapter 27 of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Drury Lane Theater  View toward Stage


There were a number of theaters to choose from in London including: The King's Theatre, Haymarket, Drury Lane, and Covent Garden. The theatres were spacious and the crowds were large. A report on the fire at Covent Garden in 1808 states that there were 1,200 persons in the three circles of boxes, 820 in the two-shilling gallery, 361 in the one-shilling gallery, and 632 people in the pit. When Elizabeth attended with her Uncle and Aunt Gardiner and Sir William and Maria Lucas, her uncle probably rented one of the boxes for a night from one of the people who leased them annually. A year's lease on a theatre box was beyond the means of the average person at 300 pounds per year in the early 1800's, but letting a box on the nights it was not in use by the lease holder was a common practice. In Persuasion, Charles Musgrove announces to his mother, "Well, mother, I have done something for you that you will like. I have been to the theatre, and secured a box for to-morrow night. A'n't I a good boy? I know you love a play; and there is room for us all. It holds nine." In fact, the largest group of theatre attendees hailed from the middle class merchants and minor gentry. Men of modest means with no women along might sit in the gallery or even the rowdy pit seats for two shillings or less. Now that a box is procured, let us take a peep inside the theatre.

Georgian theater audience
Georgian Theater Audience
Covent Garden Theater

The theatres were often laid out with a horseshoe of boxes around a pit fronting the stage. W. C. Oulton describes the Covent Garden Theatre in his book The History of the Theatres of London from the year 1771 to 1795, published in 1796. "The seats are considerably elevated, so as to give a complete uninterrupted view of the Stage. Its decorations have been sufficiently attended to: it is neat airy, and lofty, and has a proper degree of elegance. The ceiling is painted as a sky, the opening to which is surrounded by a Ballustrade supported by enriched frames... The Proscenium is composed of pilasters and columns of the Corinthian order." The crowds who came to the theatre often talked during the show obliging the actors to shout to be heard, were known to drop orange peels into the pit, and spent as much time looking at each other through their opera glasses as they did watching the play. As a student of human foibles, Elizabeth, no doubt, enjoyed the theatre. Let us hope Sir William was quiet.

Covent Garden Theater

The era in which Jane Austen wrote saw enlarged and improved theatres with new larger stages and the addition of mechanisms for use in producing startling dramatic effects. Top architects of the day, such as Henry Holland, turned their minds to improving the London theatres. Trap doors and more powerful hoists made plays more exciting than ever. Besides such standards as Shakespeare's plays new plays were written featuring comedy and more action, sporting such names as "The Corsair." Famous painters often decorated the theatre backdrops with realistic perspective paintings. The New machinery made it possible to quickly change backdrops.

A typical evening at a London theater began at six and lasted at least three hours. The program began with music played by the theater's orchestra from the time the doors opened at four or five, followed by a prologue and then a full-length play. An afterpiece, usually a pantomime, farce, or comic opera, completed the evening. The intervals between acts were filled with variety acts, which ranged from singing, dancing, magic tricks, acrobatics, through trained animals.

Theater captured the public's imagination. Prints of scenes from popular plays were best sellers in the many shops selling prints, of which Ackermann's was the most famous. Professional acting companies were led by star players. The Prince of Wales, later George IV, avidly collected theatre prints, especially those portraying leading actor David Garrick.

Jane Austen included another reference to the theater in her novel Pride and Prejudice by naming the youngest Bennet sister Lydia after Sheridan's character Lydia Languish, who thinks elopement romantic, in his play The Rivals of 1775. The author did not detail Elizabeth's theater experience with the Gardiner's both because it lay outside the plot line and was a well known experience to people of her time. Two hundred years later, we may well wonder about her "evening at one of the theaters."

theater stage trapdoor
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